February 3, 2023

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The UN nuclear watchdog demands protection of the Zaporizhia plant

As Russia targets Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog has stressed the need to protect the Russian-held Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.

“Until we protect this facility, there is a possibility of a nuclear catastrophe,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday.

The Russian invasion has endangered Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, which rely on external power to cool their reactors. In Zaporizhzhia, these power lines were repeatedly damaged in the fighting, forcing plant operators to occasionally resort to diesel generators to power cooling systems. Mr Grossi said resorting to diesel generators is an unsustainable practice given the frequency with which the external power supply fails.

“They don’t want the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, one of the largest in the world, to be cooled – basically a contingency system that depends on fuel,” he said. “Because if your generators are out of what you put in to make them work, then what happens? Then you have a meltdown. Then there is a major radiological nuclear emergency or accident and we are trying to prevent that.”

In October, Mr Grossi spoke to both Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, hoping to get both sides to agree to a demilitarized zone around Zaporizhia. He has been calling for similar action since he led a team of inspectors into the facility in August. No agreement was reached.

Last week, Russia fired more than 100 rockets at Ukraine in one day in one of the largest and most widespread attacks since the war began in February, most of which were shot down by Ukrainian forces. The rest hit key energy infrastructure and plunged almost a quarter of the country into darkness. Ukraine has warned that Russia will not ease up in its attacks on infrastructure, making it harder for Ukrainians to stay warm as winter approaches.

Before the war, nuclear power plants provided a large part of Ukraine’s energy. Last month, Russia escalated its attacks on Ukrainian nuclear facilities, targeting the Khmelnytskyi power plant in western Ukraine and forcing it to switch to diesel generators for several hours. A second nuclear power plant in the nearby province of Rivne was forced to reduce the energy it produced after power lines were damaged.

The reactors at the Zaporizhia power plant have been shut down since September for safety reasons. While a direct military strike on one of the reactor cores could still trigger an accident, the risk is greatly reduced when the facility is not in operation.

When a dozen shells exploded near the Zaporizhia power plant on Sunday, Russian and Ukrainian nuclear energy officials mutually blamed the military forces for the attack.

Mr. Grossi inspected the Zaporizhia plant in August and noticed large holes on the roof of a nuclear fuel storage facility. The plant’s electrical substation was also shelled, he said, suggesting that Russia was trying to cut off the plant’s access to electricity. Workers at the facility were also held hostage by Russian soldiers.

Mr Grossi said he hoped both sides would stop attacks threatening the plant.

“A demand for protection of the plant is very important,” said Mr. Grossi. “You don’t shoot at nuclear power plants. You’re not storming a nuclear power plant.”